Public Enemies has been near the top of my “omgomgomg” film viewing list since I first heard of the names “Mann, Depp, and Bale” in the same sentence, so I was a bit flummoxed when I started reading reviews about how dull, meaningless, and unconnected it all was.
But after seeing it, wasn’t that the point?
Public Enemies begins with a jail break orchestrated by Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger and sets the pace for the rest of the race film that follows. At no point during the duration is the viewer totally aware of who anyone is, where they are, or what exactly is going on, which is roughly how I would assume Dillinger’s life was. This is a film on the run depicting a bank robber on the run. The man’s vocation takes “one minute, forty seconds…flat,” and spends the rest of it avoiding the law. I don’t think he has the time to start moralizing on the corruption of the American soul. What can he say? “I dunno, this bank robbin’ stuff is serious business. I’m going to get killed one day unless I change my stripes!” Well yeah. But does anyone think he isn’t already aware of this fact? He’s a bank robber! As he states, “we’re not thinking about tomorrow.”
In fact, every time that there is a lull in this film, it is even more disastrous than when it moves at breakneck speed. Johnny gets nabbed when he’s in down time, innocent lives are taken when the thieves hold up in the woods and the FBI has time to figure out a plan (albeit an ill-advised one), and when Dillinger goes to take the time out of his busy life to simply watch a Clark Gable movie, it leads to his own end.
The pace does more than mimmick the life and times of Johnny Dillinger. It also helps drive at the moral ambiguity in the old white hat vs. black hat battle, and, of course, where that line exactly is. Dillinger has been sold as some sort of Robin Hood character, who steals from banks but not from people (…who put the money in the bank), some variation of the whore with a heart of gold.
What is much more interesting is the FBI’s precipitous fall from the Ivory Tower. Led by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, in full-on Old-Timey! voice) and the head of the Chicago branch–and de-facto leader on the ground–Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, thankfully sans Batman Voice), the FBI gives medals of decoration to children (Little Crime Fighters!) and turns into a by-any-means-necessary militia hell-bent on putting an end to this crime spree.
As the film opens and Hoover is told that the cost of the FBI’s war on crime is more than the criminals steal. It turns out to be true, and more than just financially. While the hunt progresses, the Ivy League, prissy boy men Hoover has appointed to clean the streets are ill-equipped to deal with the criminals, so Purvis calls on some more “experienced” members to lend a gun or two. There are patches of this film where you have to quickly process who has a badge and who does not. What’s the criteria? A hardened face, or shooting g an innocent bystander? More often than not, moral judgment flies as quickly as the bullets from a tommy gun, and is as precise as the spray of holes than ends up on the wall.
The most egregious penalty, an interrogation of a female that would make Jack Bauer beam, is perpetrated by the FBI. Considering the goon who doles out the slapping and the decor of the room, if you went to the bathroom and came back in the middle of that scene, I’m sure you would have no idea what was going on, just as Purvis seems when he comes back to the office. From photo-ops with children to beating women, the lack of morality escalated like a network TV newsman fight.
If you are going to see this film, just know that you’re in the same position as Marion Cotillard’s character Billie Frechette, when Dillinger asks, “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else do you need to know?”